Kristina M Johnson 1 Doctor Bess Final Paper Secular Salvation For each of the characters in The Poisonwood Bible, the paths to redemption and salvation differed greatly. For some it was simple, while others suffered greatly in the search for forgiveness. Sometimes, forgiveness is an unattainable goal. For each person the struggle to forgive oneself for the past is a beast that has the ability to consume one’s identity and leave behind a shadow of that previous self. For some people this beast is easily turned away by the ability to turn away and never look back. Others will spend their whole lives begging forgiveness from the past. Some will spend the rest of their lives in a self-induced state of suffering in an attempt for redemption for the past, never understanding that they have already suffered enough. These people will take on the weight of the world and make this pain their own. The burden of guilt is something that everyone must deal with, but this burden is something that seems nearly impossible to overcome. When guilt becomes and infinite and defining force in one’s life, change soon follows, whether it is an attempt at survival or a breaking point. One will either emerge a stronger person or drown beneath the crushing load. In this paper, I will explore whether personal salvation is attainable through suffering, or if redemption can only be achieved through self-forgiveness. Nathan will never achieve redemption because he will not allow himself to accept the simple fact that his company died and he did not. Instead of celebrating that fact he was alive and had a loving family, he chose to spend the rest of his life haunted by the past. His burden of guilt was the force that destroyed his family and changed him forever. He could not see past his burden far enough to even take notice of his family’s suffering. He felt God would punish him because of his survival, so Nathan dedicated the rest of his life to a poisonous evangelism and the work of a God he did not understand. He treated his wife and daughters as immoral slaves. For Kristina M Johnson 2 Doctor Bess Final Paper the women in the book, guilt is mainly associated with the death of Ruth May. Nathan is so consumed with his own guilt of chance survival that he cannot even be bothered with his own daughter’s death. Unfortunately, an inappropriate guilt consumed Nathan until all that was left behind was a wild-eyed obsession with redemption. For Nathan, there could never be a salvation simply because he will never be able to do enough works to satisfy his own need for absolvement. Rachel is a mirror of Nathan’s cold self-obsession. While Nathan has become this way because of his all-consuming search for redemption, Rachel is self-obsessed because she believe it will get her what she wants in life. And for the most part, it does. She goes from being the sort of popular preacher’s daughter to a woman who marries diplomats and owns the bar everyone flocks to for a good time. For Rachel, redemption is simple. She simply turns a blind eye towards the pain of others and focuses on her sole survival. Rachel is materialistic and prefers not to think about how her actions affect others. She often finds ways to make situations that are difficult for everyone involved to revolve her own lack of comfort, exemplified on the night of the nsongonya. Instead of taking the time to help her family, she grabs what she considers most important (a mirror) and runs for the river. Not only does she abandon her family without a second thought, she uses the crowd to carry her to safety by shoving her elbows into the villagers’ ribs and lifting her feet. She figuratively uses this technique throughout her entire life to ensure that she will always be comfortable and more importantly to survive. This uncaring attitude is selfish, but it allows her to achieve exactly what she wants to lead a comfortable life. After Ruth May’s death, Rachel feels grief for only an instant before hardening herself towards the memory of Ruth May and worrying simply about how her “friends” in America would treat her. She is more concerned with the thought of being unpopular than the Kristina M Johnson 3 Doctor Bess Final Paper fact that her sister has died. As the book progresses, Rachel comes to believe that she must have done something right and Ruth May died because she was guilty of some wrong. Rachel’s vapidity is surpassed only by her selfishness. When Ruth May and Orleanna become ill, Rachel is not upset because her mother and sister are sick; instead she is upset because she is the daughter who must take over the cooking. While her arrogance and vanity are not enviable traits, her obsession with herself made her truly strong. For this reason alone she may be respected. No matter what her situation, Rachel always finds a way to not only make her life better, but get exactly what she wants. Rachel will not look back on her past because then she might have to deal with what she has done, or more specifically, what she did not do. Rachel never has to combat her guilt or struggle for any sort of forgiveness because she refuses to deal with her guilt. She simply walks away and never looks back. Rachel becomes completely cold and uncaring towards others, and at the same time she becomes a strong woman. Leah also learned from her father, but she learned to stop emulating him and became his antithesis. Leah begs for forgiveness every morning, but instead of forging ahead thinking only of herself, she gives herself to the people and the land. For Leah, the struggle with her guilt will never really end. She not only carries the burden of Ruth May’s death on her back, she also takes on the injustice that has been dealt to the people of Africa. She hates herself for being white, despite the fact that she had no choice in the matter. Leah does not understand that while racial injustice has occurred between the whites and blacks, she is not the sole cause of it. She tries to recreate herself into a good Congolese woman, but never succeeds because she is never pleased with herself. She made a strong connection with the Congolese shortly before Nathan fell in her eyes. Much like her relationship with her father, she is always begging Africa for forgiveness and acceptance when she really doesn’t need to. If she could end all the pain the Kristina M Johnson 4 Doctor Bess Final Paper Congolese people suffer, save Ruth May and shed her white skin she might finally have a chance to be happy. Leah is a truly good person. Her altruism is outstanding. She and Anatole spend their lives fighting for justice and freedom in the Congo. Leah is uncomfortable with privileged American life and all the waste it incurs after living in Africa so she does not move back to America permanently. She and Anatole do go back for a while to attend college. Leah studied Agronomics in the hopes that she would be better able to teach the Congolese about sustainable farming. She simply does not have the ability to forgive herself. In her uphill battle for redemption, she blames herself for the pain, suffering and death of everyone in Africa. Leah goes through several reinventions of herself in the novel as she learns to deal with pain and loss, but her final self is a person who is trying desperately to make up to the world so many wrongs she had nothing to do with. Leah is continually working for redemption, but it is something she will never let herself have because she can’t let go. Every year after Ruth May’s death on January 17th, she becomes angry and inconsolable. She understands the African idea Anatole presents that her pain is not unique, but she cannot let go of the American idea of how nothing will be the same again without Ruth May. She cannot reconcile how ineffectual she was in Ruth May’s death, but she cannot admit to herself that there was nothing she could have done to stop the green mamba from killing Ruth May. Leah has a self-degrading, masochistic complex created by her relationship with her father. The only way she can stand to live with herself is if she suffers for the rest of her life. Leah’s path to redemption then is suffering, but perhaps there is no actual chance of redemption for her because she cannot forgive herself. Nathan exhausted Orleanna with his belief that women are truly evil and ignorant. He broke her down until she didn’t really try to fight him anymore, it and took losing her daughter to bring herself back out from her shell again. Orleanna allows her guilt to consume her. She has Kristina M Johnson 5 Doctor Bess Final Paper no will to forgive herself, but instead forever begs Ruth May to forgive her. She a good deal of the blame on herself for Ruth May’s death and all of her children’s suffering. She was the one that did not stand up to Nathan when presented with several chances to escape Africa and his abuse. By allowing him to rule over her, she slowly lost more and more of herself, becoming meek and submissive. Despite her unhappiness, she stays with him because she doesn’t know what else to do. Nathan promised her a wonderful life full of love and doing God’s work. After he returns from the war he quickly shuns her and never again does he show his feelings. She allowed herself to be ruled by him and it is because of that she feels she lost Ruth May. Had Orleanna stood up to Nathan, Ruth May would still be fine. All of her children suffered because of her husband’s insanity. Orleanna seems to beg the earth itself for her forgiveness with her obsessively worked gardens. She begins walking barefoot and has conversations with the ground. She never regains the light in her eyes after Ruth May’s death. It would seem that though Orleanna’s guilt is an all-consuming monster she cannot escape, she is much like Leah. They both refuse to stop suffering for a past they cannot change. Orleanna does go back to America, but lives like a pauper and spends all of her time planting flower gardens. She treats the gardens like another daughter, and perhaps it is her personal ode to Ruth May. She deals with her guilt of the injustice in Africa by leading civil rights marches in America and working with international organizations to help the people of Africa. Her lifelong ineffectuality is replaced by a woman who cannot be touched by anything because she is so consumed by her own guilt over her daughters’ suffering. She becomes almost zombie-like because of it, and yet in her work she is just as strong as Rachel. Perhaps it is because she is already gone inside. Orleanna will never forgive herself for allowing Nathan to play such a large and detrimental role her children’s lives. Each of them grew up stunted one way or another because of his abuse. Kristina M Johnson 6 Doctor Bess Final Paper Rachel is as cold and self-serving as her father, Leah is continually begging for love and forgiveness like a beaten dog and Adah spends the better part of her life trying to accept that she deserves to be alive. For these offences, she takes the blame personally because she was their mother and she was supposed to protect her daughters. Orleanna is haunted by Africa and will never let go of her guilt. It has destroyed her and left a shell of her former identity behind. Adah learned early on not to expect love from her father, under any circuimstances. Adah’s main struggle in life was learning who she was and how this identity places her in the world. Adah battles guilt for most of her life. Her initial anger towards her disability is turned into guilt for being alive after realizing how precious life is during the nsongonya. She does not understand why she should be allowed to live while other people she feels more deserving, such as Ruth May or Patrice Lumumba, die every day. She spends a large part of her life after the nsongonya trying to understand why it is that she deserves to be alive, and this questioning is amplified after Ruth May’s death. Her guilt over Ruth May’s death isn’t like Leah’s or Orleanna’s in that Adah accepts that she cannot change what happened and she could not have stopped Ruth May’s death in the first place. Adah instead tries to reason out her entire life scientifically. Eventually Adah breaks down and asks Orleanna why she was chosen out the three remaining girls to leave Africa for Orleanna. Adah had felt that Leah deserved to go instead of her because even though Leah had malaria, she was more fit than Adah. Orleanna told Adah she took care of her children from the bottom up. Adah was finally able to understand why her mother had chosen Ruth May over her during the nsongonya and why Orleanna chose to bring Adah home instead of Leah. Adah can shed her burden of guilt at this point because she realizes that she is the same as everyone else, no more or no less. She is also able to resolve a lot of her guilt over her relationship with her mother and her previous resentment of life by realizing Kristina M Johnson 7 Doctor Bess Final Paper that it is now her turn to take care of Orleanna. Adah also realizes that she deserves to be happy just like everyone else. Adah came out of the African experience a healthier person mentally and emotionally than the other women in her family because she was able to forgive herself without turning a blind eye to the pain of others. Adah finds a way to scientifically make sense of the world and searches out an understanding on a basic level. Her choice to become a doctor, particularly an epidemiologist, is a result of her search for understanding and a chance for redemption. Adah did not struggle a much as Leah and Orleanna emotionally because she was still questioning the validity and importance of life when the turning points in their lives occurred. For Adah, the struggle of salvation was simply a matter of understanding the fact that every person deserves to live. For each of these characters, dealing with personal guilt is the major obstacle in the path to redemption. For Rachel it is not a problem. Whether or not she consciously realizes it, she makes the choice to distance herself from any feeling of guilt for her own survival. It allows her to flourish. Leah on the other hand does not have the ability to relieve herself of any of the guilt she feels. She instead chooses to suffer for what she sees as her wrongs. She does not let it consume her, but she does let it control the way she leads her life. Leah turns to political activism and altruism to cleanse her of her sins. Leah will never be able to fully forgive herself, but she will not be totally consumed like her mother and father were either. Orleanna lets her guilt over her own ineffectuality consume her entire self. She makes sure her surviving daughters will survive on their own before completely withdrawing inside of herself. She allows her guilt and pain to crush her self, and instead becomes a sort of force to be reckoned with. It is interesting how Nathan has changed her into a portrait of himself. Rather than asking God forgiveness though, she begs Ruth May. Neither can forget their haunted pasts and each are so Kristina M Johnson 8 Doctor Bess Final Paper consumed by it that their former selves only appear in flickers. Nathan never found his salvation. Instead he lost himself in the struggle. Adah is burdened with guilt for the better part of her life, but by coming to an understanding of the world around her, she is freed from it. She knows that she cannot change the entire world and so instead focuses on the small things she can do to help. Adah found her redemption and understands that one cannot be blamed for all the wrongs of the world, and if one does believe this it will result in self-destruction. Self-induced suffering does not seem to be a reasonable way to attain redemption; and while it is part of guilt it should not be allowed to consume you. Flippantly ignoring the burden of guilt is not a viable solution either. Becoming cold and selfish is a sad choice for survival. While each person must deal with their guilt personally and no one handles it in the same way, I do not think suffering and works will absolve one of anything. I think that at some point in your life you have to stop and finally forgive yourself. Kristina M Johnson 9 Doctor Bess Final Paper Kingsolver, Barbara. The Poisonwood Bible. HarperPerennial. New York: 1999.